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Norquist Losing Clout With Republicans Not Pledging: Taxes

There are 279 members of Congress who’ve pledged in writing to march in lockstep with the group Americans for Tax Reform and vote against tax increases.

If the analysts are right, that number probably will fall next year, making life tougher for the anti-tax gadfly Democrats love to hate: Grover Norquist, president of the group behind the pledge. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report and Rothenberg Political Report project that Republicans could lose as many as 10 seats, and at least eight of the Republicans viewed as shoo- ins for the freshman class haven’t signed the pledge.

“You’re pledging to an ideology of someone who’s not in government -- he’s a lobbyist -- and I just don’t think that’s a smart move,” said Ted Yoho, a Republican running in Florida’s 3rd Congressional District. “It just ties your hand and it limits you. I just think it impedes the lawmaker.”

The losses may signal higher odds that there is at least some room for bipartisan compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff of spending cuts and tax increases facing the U.S. Congress. Norquist’s pledge-signers are viewed by Democrats, and even some Senate Republicans, as the primary obstacle to reaching any deal on the cliff or crafting a major overhaul of the tax code next year, both of which may result in increased revenue in the way of higher taxes.

Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks during an interview in New York. Close

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks during an interview in New York.

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Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks during an interview in New York.

Washington seems to be headed toward “a time when Grover Norquist’s pledge is not going to mean as much as it has in the past,” said Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist at the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that advocates for deficit reduction and was founded by the late former Senator Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, and former Republican Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.

Defections Starting

Either Congress will find a technicality to raise revenue without violating the pledge or lawmakers will “get more pressure from the public and interest groups that some kind of revenue-side solution is needed,” she said yesterday.

Norquist already has had a few defections among sitting House members. Among those who changed their minds were Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, and Robert Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat. For the current Congress, he lists 238 House signers.

In the Democratic-controlled Senate, pledge signatories number 41, enough to derail legislation through procedural votes if they stick together and vote as a bloc.

Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have openly broken with Norquist, while Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho have participated in deficit-reduction talks where tax-raising provisions are on the table.

Tax Debate

Some other Republicans in the Senate who have signed the pledge, such as Johnny Isakson of Georgia, have hinted it won’t restrain them during upcoming debates to overhaul the tax code.

“You’ve got to have the intestinal fortitude to put everything on the table,” Isakson, who favors a comprehensive tax overhaul that lowers income tax rates and ends often-used deductions, said in an Oct. 24 interview with Bloomberg News. “And I do mean everything.”

“We can’t get there any other way,” he said. “If you just take one tax treatment and say ‘I’m going to repeal it,’ you don’t get a solution to your problem.”

Norquist, who emphasizes that the pledge is to taxpayers and not to him, dismisses the significance of any incremental drop in the numbers, saying that what matters most is whether he keeps a critical mass in the chamber that writes the tax bills.

“It’s the same” either way, he said in an Oct. 30 telephone interview. “As long as you have the majority, and right now we have more than 90 percent” of House Republicans.

Pledge Details

Here’s the fine print of the pledge.

Those who sign agree to: “ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Letting a tax break expire wouldn’t violate the pledge, though Norquist wants Congress to keep all tax cuts in place.

Lawmakers sign the pledge for the seat they occupy. House members who move to the Senate have the option to renew the pledge. It’s not necessary for incumbents to re-sign the document at the beginning of a new Congress.

The Cook Political Report and Rothenberg Political Report both project that Republicans will retain control of the House, where 218 seats are needed for the majority.

Norquist would start the 113th Congress with more than 218 pledge-signers even if Republicans lose 10 seats, the most estimated by both Washington race-handicapping operations.

Anticipating Defections

Norquist has considered the possibility that pledge- ignoring Senate Republicans could cut a deal with Democrats during the fiscal-cliff debate.

“Make a list of the people you think will flake on you,” he said. “They’re all running for re-election in 2014. Chambliss, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham.”

If a large number of Senate Republicans defect together, it would be harder for Norquist’s group or any other foe to fund enough primary challengers to punish them all.

“You’d think at some point a large number of Republicans might have to say, ‘Well, if we really are going to shrink government, if we’re really going to address entitlements, everything’s on the table,’” Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report said yesterday in a phone interview. “If they don’t, we just may never get anything done.”

Angering Democrats

Spend enough time around the U.S. Capitol and some senator -- probably a Democrat -- will bring up Norquist.

“Grover Norquist is the problem around here, and bipartisanship in the Senate is the solution,” Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, told reporters in June.

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada complained on the Senate floor in September about Republicans refusing to raise the tax rates on the highest income bracket. “Due to the orders of their leader Grover Norquist, they have refused to raise even a penny of new revenue,” he said.

Norquist, 56, has served as president of the tax group since 1985. He’s never held public office.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney signed Norquist’s pledge in 2006 as a candidate for the White House, four years after refusing to sign a similar pledge offered by another anti-tax group when he was running for governor of Massachusetts.

Looking ahead to the tax debates coming later this year and early next year, Norquist predicts more party discipline from Republicans on Capitol Hill, even if they’re dealing with four more years of President Barack Obama instead of a president from their own party.

“I think they’ll operate much more as a team this time and give Obama a very short leash,” he said. “If Obama wins you kick the can down the road two years.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Timothy R. Homan in Washington at thoman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net

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